Colleges and certification: The new IT curriculum?
Posted on
December 26, 2016
What is the place of IT certification at colleges and universities?

Irving Berlin sang it in 1938: "Everybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it. Everybody's doin' it now! Come, come, come, come, let us start! Cuz ev'rybody's doin' it now!"

In 2017, I'm singing about certification. How certification curriculum is being delivered is the real question 78 years after Berlin's famous Everybody's Doing It Now ditty made our older relatives want to dance. We're dancing for joy now with each certification exam we pass, knowing that it's an important addition to our résumés and our futures.

Hours of preparation and study time went into that success, so how did you get so smart? Did you take a course in college? Did you study on your own? Are you one of the lucky ones who had enough experience to ace the exam without studying? (Not likely. It can be done, but probably shouldn't be your de facto approach.)

Certification in the classroom

Colleges are "doin' it," too. They are responding to students' needs for curricula that is mapped to certification exam objectives. Certification Magazine has already printed my views on whether certification is more important than college degrees (no!) or vice versa (also no!).

Smart schools are embracing the student-driven desire to hold computer certifications as well as one or two college degrees. A résumé that contains certifications next to a college degree can make the difference between landing that all-important, big-paying job and not even getting an interview.

Since certification exam objectives are readily available online, colleges interested in mapping curriculum to certification would seem to have it easy. On the other hand, however, there are pitfalls:

Colleges move at a snail's pace, but technology doesn't. The minute a college maps its computer hardware repair course to CompTIA's A+ certification, CompTIA changes the objectives, requiring the college to modify course materials and hire newly qualified instructors, both of which are time-consuming processes.

Colleges move at a snail's pace (Did I say that already?), and colleges must worry about accreditation. The minute CompTIA changes the objectives for the A+ exam, colleges must get the new curriculum approved by those committees that ensure compliance with the accreditation body.

Colleges move at a snail's pace (Oh, one more time won't hurt you.), and curriculum based on current norms can vanish in a hurry. Imagine a college offering a course with curriculum that maps to the TCP/IP certification exam, a certification that I passed in 2001 that was required for the first Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer cert.

Microsoft doesn't require TCP/IP anymore. Why? Because in 2017, a firm grasp of TCP/IP is built into almost every major computer certification exam objective today. It is at the heart of what we geeks do most often — the Internet.

Certification versus disclosure

Some colleges, such as online institution Western Governors University, are killing two birds with one stone by essentially replacing course objectives with certification exam objectives, sometimes even requiring that a certification exam be the final exam for the course. Since final exams are generally worth between 10 and 25 percent of a student's final grade for the course, this is quite a commitment on the college's part.

A major obstacle to schools wanting to embrace computer certification at this level is FERPA. FERPA is the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act, a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education, although most schools who are not required to follow FERPA elect to do so anyway.

FERPA is a good thing for everyone, but colleges must be careful. FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.

Both FERPA and any authorized testing agency have strict rules regarding how an examinee's test scores can be shared. If a college decides to make the certification exam act as the final exam for a course, then the college must be sure that it is not violating student rights under FERPA. Authorized testing agencies like Pearson VUE also have strict guidelines about sharing or discussing students' exam scores with the professor; even a "pass/fail" response is against FERPA and Pearson VUE rules.

Where do we go from here?

What's a forward-thinking university to do? The wiser institutions are offering curricula that has been mapped to the objectives for several certification exams rather than restrict themselves to the objectives of a specific certification.

These institutions then put their financial and time resources into hosting an on-site Pearson VUE Testing Center (PVTC). Students can use this resource to purchase discounted test vouchers for the exams that they are most interested in taking.

What is the place of IT certification at colleges and universities?

In this scenario, the PVTC is located on campus, so there are no transportation issues, and the PVTC handles the heavy lifting of scheduling students for exams, printing reports, and handling payments (usually through the Pearson web site).

While a PVTC is typically managed by a full-time university employee acting as the Test Administrator, that TA can hire/appoint graduate students to keep the PVTC equipment running smoothly while managing test reservations, payments, exam vouchers, etc. At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, graduate students can opt for a position within the PVTC to satisfy the required internship for a Masters in one of Valpo's several technology programs.

As technology certifications become more valuable in the workforce, colleges continue to evolve to meet the demands of their advisory boards. Colleges move at a snail's pace (One more time!) while technology moves at lightning speeds. The happy compromise is to think outside of the box, giving students and universities a win-win outcome. My hat goes off to those colleges who are brave enough to step outside of that box to be innovative and student-centered.

About the Author

April Miller Cripliver holds a doctorate in Management Information Systems and has earned more than 25 computer certifications in networking, security, hardware and operating systems. She is a Subject Matter Expert for CompTIA and owns USER FRIENDLY CONNECTIONS, a computer consulting firm in northwest Indiana. Contact Dr. Cripliver at Info (at) UserFriendlyConnections (dot) com.

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